The Situation (2)

We have a tendency to overthink the syllabus. A year ago, I started fantasizing about a simpler life, teaching Shakespeare at some small, selective liberal arts college. I imagined twelve three-hour lectures/seminars devoted entirely to Hamlet, teaching one act at a time, and assigning a five-paragraph essay every two weeks. I wrote five posts (one for each act), and had planned to write a couple more about larger issues and the final exam. I’ll write those soon, but today I want to talk only about the required reading, where a very simple solution immediately presents itself. Like last year, I want to emphasize that the choice of Hamlet is arbitrary — just an example. You can choose any classic text in your discipline as the focus of your class. As they say, it’s your fantasy.

You will, of course, assign the play in some authoritative edition, such as the Arden Shakespeare. Could students make do with another edition? Of course. But you should remind them that their peer reader has the one you assign, including the critical introduction and the notes. That’s the edition that the reader will be referring to when you cite the play directly, and this image of the reader checking your references is important. You are trying to get your students to imagine real flesh-and-blood “peers”, people engaging in the same sort of intellectual work that they themselves are engaged in. They will be of comparable intelligence and linguistic ability, and they will struggle and learn in comparable ways with the same text. By putting the very same book in each of their hands, you are facilitating their empathy, a sense of intellectual camaraderie. That can be a powerful influence on the class and will do much of the work for you.

What about “the critical literature”? The more classic your key text is, the easier this will be. In my fantasy, for example, I simply assign the Arden Critical Reader. The students now have two solid books to organize a community around, a sort of paradigm for the class. By the final exam, everyone is expected to have read both books in their entirety. This defines a horizon for their discourse, both in class and in their essays. The syllabus will tell them what a legitimate participant in today’s discussion will be expected to have read. Yes, this means that they can either remain silent or pretend otherwise if they haven’t read the day’s readings. There is a risk of exposure, of course, but it’s not so serious that they can’t have fun with it. More importantly, if they have read the assigned reading, they will be able to assume knowledge on the part of their classmates, and use this as a resource to more effectively communicate their insights. Here it is important to emphasize that a horizon is not a boundary: your range of vision is not your range of imagination. Just because your interlocutor can’t see something, does not mean you can’t talk about it.

You might be wondering where the primary literature in the critical tradition has gone. When will the students read Bradley, Wilson, Eliot, Knight, and Kittredge, not to mention Freud (or, better, Jones) and Lacan? These names, of course, come up in the critical reader I’ve already assigned, so my first suggestion is simply to let the students look up the sources as they go, guided, in the first instance, by their curiosity. But as the classroom discussion develops, I would also encourage the students to make some collective decisions about which of the classic works of criticism they should commit each other to having read. If Eliot’s “objective correlative” ends up playing an important role in their assessment of the play, then they should read Eliot’s seminal essay. If Bradley’s theory of Shakespearean tragedy stimulates their thinking, then get them to agree to read it. If a debate rages about whether Freud or Lacan … or Deleuze! … is right about Hamlet’s state of mind, then by all means, suggest they get into the psychoanalysis of the character. That is, let part of the reading list grow organically.

Notice that you are defining a rhetorical situation for the students. What counts as a bright idea or a good question or a witty remark will be determined by a common store of materials that grows as the class proceeds. They can test themselves at any time simply by taking one of their classmates aside and talking about the things that interest them or puzzle them or frustrate them about the play. (They will quickly identify the serious students that make this exercise worthwhile — for both parties.) It is because the scholarly conversation around Hamlet (and all great works of literature) already exists that your work as a teacher — and syllabus designer — does not have to be arduous. You make a few quick, standard selections and establish them as shared reference points for the class. You then let the students contribute their interest and intelligence, and, most importantly, their curiosity. There are countless paths to take through major works of literature and their critical reception. You just have to pick a place to begin.

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